Western Trips

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Great Train Robbery / The Union Pacific Posse

 Visit the Union Pacific Railroad Museum

When your western road trip takes you through Council Bluffs Iowa, one of the most historically interesting stops you can make is the Union Pacific Railroad Museum. Union Pacific train history is quite fascinating. One of the primary reasons that a stop at this well known museum is fun and educational is the fact that the building and running of this railroad was a large part of America's western expansion. The Union Pacific Railroad is western history itself. The Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs Iowa houses one of the oldest corporate collections in the nation. It includes artifacts, photographs, and rare documents that tell the story of the railroad and the American West it helped build. Among the collection is information about the era's outlaws, weaponry, and a lot about the immigrants who traveled west to build a new life. It's an excellent family side trip when on a road trip to Council Bluffs. The museum address is 200 Pearl Street in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The Train Robbers

great train robbery poster
There are also some particularly interesting stories that came from operating this railroad. One very unique story is how the Union Pacific dealt with the increasing threat from the latter 1800's outlaws.

 In fact, the period of the great train robbers gave creation to the twelve minute 1903 movie "The Great Train Robbery". This film was made during the very early years of the movie industry when the studios were located on the east coast. This particular film was shot in Milltown New Jersey.

Post Civil War Train Robbers

After the end of the Civil War there was a significant increase in highway and railroad express car robberies. Stagecoaches were stopped and robbed by highwaymen and the railroads experienced the same fate on the tracks. A good deal of the problem for the Union Pacific was in the Wyoming area. This was a region where the train robbers could easily flee to some of the most rugged country in North America. If the train express car was attacked late in the day, the bandits could head straight for the Hole-in-the-Wall area (noted place for bandit hideouts) or to the North park country. They would be fleeing at sunset or night time and their pursuers had an almost impossible task in catching up to them. The infamous Wild Bunch gang operating in southern Wyoming was a particular problem for the Union Pacific Railroad.

The Railroad Posse and the Pinkertons

The question to be figured out by the Union Pacific Railroad was simply...how do you catch the outlaws after the robbery occurs and how do you act to discourage the attack in the first place? The Union pacific came up with the answer. A mobile posse force. Today, you might call it a first responder group or possibly a SWAT team. The railroad created a force of special agents which were equipped with horses capable of traveling one hundred miles per day. The agents and horses were moved around on trains and because of this never before ability the special railroad posse could be chasing the outlaws just a few hours after the robbery. This represented quite an improvement in railroad crime fighting.

The famed Pinkerton National Detective Agency was also involved with railroad and express company protection and made a lot of money doing it. The Pinkertons were on the trail of known outlaws and train robbers such as Jesse James, the Younger brothers, Butch Cassidy, Sam Bass and many others.

 The Pinkertons began in the 1850's and founder Allan Pinkerton was involved with the Union forces during the Civil War. Pinkerton security services grew tremendously after the war's end. The company was eventually run by his sons William and Robert. William Pinkerton, who operated the Chicago office, was known to be quite personally involved chasing down western outlaws and reportedly spent many days in the saddle. One Union Pacific train robbery of note occurred on June 2, 1899.

The Outlaw Butch Cassidy and the Union Pacific

Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch robbed the Overland Flyer near Wilcox Wyoming. Once the bandits had left the scene, the trainmen limped their broken train about 12 miles into Medicine Bow, the next regular stop, where engineer Jones reported the holdup by telegram to Union Pacific officials. The Union Pacific Railroad  sent the specially outfitted train kept ready in Laramie, Wyoming loaded with horses, equipment, food and men to the robbery site near Wilcox Station.

Including the Pinkertons and locals there were about 100 posse men out chasing the train robbers within hours after the crime. The robbers after dynamiting the safe in the express car left shortly after 4am. The Union Pacific posse train arrived in Wilcox about 9am. The posse never did catch the robbers and there are some who believe that Butch Cassidy wasn't even involved although he reportedly got some of the money. During the chase, the posse was supposedly ambushed by the gang and during the shootout a Pinkerton contract employee was shot and killed. The posse chase ended after the Pinkerton contract detective/agent was shot. As it turned out, not the Pinkertons, the Union Pacific Railroad posse or anyone else in the U.S. was ever able to arrest Butch Cassidy after the Wilcox robbery. The public domain photo below is of Butch Cassidy circa 1900.

Take our fun twenty-five question history quiz on our Trips Into History site. 

Short History Quiz

butch cassidy photo
Butch Cassidy, circa 1900
The Pinkerton security story is unique in as much as during the late 1800's this private detective agency acted in a quasi -government law enforcement agency. While the Pinkertons were a private company, some people refer to the Pinkerton agency as being the start in a way of the federal agency which decades later evolved into the FBI. When the federal law enforcement agencies grew over the years, the Pinkertons became more of a guard service than a law enforcement vehicle.

In a way, when the Union Pacific formed their mobile posse, they were only doing what all railroads do, even today, and that was protecting their property. While train robbery is fairly nonexistent today, virtually every railroad has it's own police security force.

More Good Stops for Your Trip Planner

There are also other excellent museums concerning the Union Pacific Railroad which you may want to visit during a western road trip. The Cheyenne Depot Museum is located in downtown Cheyenne Wyoming. This non profit museum is housed in the renovated Union Pacific depot. The Cheyenne Depot Museum tells the story of the founding of Cheyenne during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Along with many artifacts of the time, the museum will features the story of the construction of the Union Pacific Depot.  In Omaha Nebraska there is the Union Pacific Historical Museum which is located in the Union Pacific Railroad headquarters building. The museum is open Monday through Friday and Saturday mornings to the public.

(Photos and images from the public domain)